how many calories should you eat per day to lose weight

Shannon Clark, SATI STAFF

Looking to see optimal fat loss results? Want to kick your fat burning into overdrive? When it comes to setting up your weight loss program, nutrition needs to be a big part of your focus. Without the right meal plan, success will not be seen. You can exercise as much as you want, but as the saying goes, ‘You can’t out-exercise a bad diet’.

So this leads us to the first question you might be asking, ‘How can you set up a diet that will yield success?’

The initial thing you need to consider is your calorie intake. How many calories you consume on a daily basis will be the biggest influence that dictates which direction the scale moves. Eat more calories than you burn and you will gain weight. Likewise, if you consume fewer calories than you burn off, you’ll lose weight.

Getting the right total calorie balance then is step one to success.

How many calories do you need? This will depend on a few different factors. Let’s go over what you need to know to answer this question effectively.

The components of your daily energy expenditure

To master the equation of energy balance and ensure you consume fewer calories than you burn off, you need to get a rough estimate of your daily energy expenditure.

Realize that it’s impossible to know for certain exactly how many calories you are burning up daily. All you can do is get a pretty good rough estimate based on what scientists have figured out according to research done on a wide variety of different populations. Through this research, they have put forth formula’s that we can use today that will give us a pretty good rough estimation of your total energy expenditure.

Let’s go over how you figure this out now.


The first component of your total energy expenditure is referred to as your basal metabolic rate, otherwise known as BMR. It’s also sometimes referred to as your RMR (resting metabolic rate), so note that those two terms can generally be used interchangeably.

This accounts for how much energy it takes each day just to keep your body alive. It’s the amount of energy required to keep your brain functioning, your heart beating, your lungs taking in oxygen, and all your other organs carrying out their functions. If you were sit in bed all day and not move a muscle, this is the amount of energy that you would burn.

One good well-established equation you can use to figure this out is the Harris-Benedict equation, which goes as follows:

Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 X weight in kg’s) + (5 X height in cm’s) – (6.8 X age in years)

Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 X weight in kg’s) + (1.8 X height in cm’s) – 4.7 X age in years)

Take a moment right now to put in your numbers and see what your BMR comes up at.

Now, if you aren’t a math whiz or don’t have a calculator nearby, not to worry. Another very simplified approach you can use is to simply multiply your current body weight in pounds by 10 if you are a female and 11 if you are a male. This can give you a pretty good rough estimation of where you stand for this value.

These values do tend to remain fairly constant among individuals, however do note that the biggest factor that can sway your numbers is the amount of total lean muscle mass you have. The more lean muscle you possess, the more ‘metabolically active’ your body will be and therefore, the higher your total calorie expenditure will be.

More on this factor to come.


The next element that goes into determining how many calories you need to eat to lose weight is the thermic effect of food factor, otherwise referred to as the TEF factor.

This accounts for how much total energy is utilized by your body simply breaking down the foods you eat on a daily basis. Every time you eat a meal, your body is going to burn up some energy breaking those foods down.

Certain foods require more energy to break down than others, so here’s an example of where your diet may influence this number. Generally speaking, protein rich foods require more total energy to break down in the body, therefore they give you a higher TEF value. Carbohydrates and fats are quite efficient, so the number will be lower.

For those eating a mixed diet, TEF will account for around 10% of your total energy requirements. If you happen to be eating a high protein diet, you may notice that your number is a little higher – around 12-13%. You don’t necessarily have to factor this in, just know that it’ll give you a slight boost.

If you used the Harris-Benedict equation above, TEF is already factored into that, so no need to worry about it at this point.

If you used the 10/11 multiplication factor with your body weight in pounds, you now need to add it in. So take the number you first arrived at and multiply by 1.1. This will give you your new number.

Activity factor

Finally, the last factor that goes into determining how many calories you burn up on a daily basis is your activity factor. This accounts for how much energy all the various movements you make throughout the day use. Things like brushing your teeth in the morning to cooking breakfast as you get your day started. Your workout plan also comes into play here. Likewise, if you happen to walk more often at work, that will also all add up.

This is the part of the equation that can really vary from individual to individual and even amongst the same individual. Chances are, you aren’t doing the exact same amount of activity each and every day of the week, so even your own calorie burn will vary across time.

So we simply need to get a rough estimate. You’ll use what’s referred to as ‘multiplication factors’ to pinpoint about how much you burn. Here are the factors to know:

Sedentary = BMR X 1.2

Lightly Active (1-3 days of light exercise) = BMR X 1.375

Moderately Active (3-5 days of light exercise) = BMR X 1.55

Very Active (6-7 days of exercise) = BMR X 1.725

Exceptionally Active (laborious job and 6-7 days of activity) = BMR X 1.9

Think about where you fall in that range and now take the number you arrived at before and multiply by the factor that applies best to you.

Once you have this number, you now have your total daily energy expenditure.

Individual factors that may play a role

Keep in mind, this will only be an estimate. Various factors can play a role in how much total energy you burn.

Some of these factors include:

  • Your gender: males tend to burn more total calories than women each day simply because they have more lean muscle mass tissue. Muscle is highly metabolically active, so it tends to burn more energy than fat mass does.
  • The type of exercise you are performing. If you are doing high intensity exercise, this can create a post-exercise metabolic spike that causes you to increase your resting metabolic rate for up to 48 hours after the workout is over. Therefore, you’ll increase your total daily energy expenditure.
  • Your dietary status. Whenever you go on a reduced calorie diet plan, your resting metabolic rate will slow down slightly to accommodate this lower energy intake. As such, your total daily energy expenditure is lower.
  • The type of food you are eating. Those who consume more protein and carbohydrates in their diet typically burn more calories than those on very low carb approaches. Low carb diets tend to shift certain hormones in the body that can dampen the metabolic rate.
  • The climate you live in. If you are in a very cold climate, you may find yourself burning more calories as the body tries to stay warm. Note this is often compensated for however through a higher food intake. People naturally tend to eat more food during the winter so usually this factor is negligible, but still worth noting.
  • Supplementation that you may be using. Heavy habitual caffeine consumers do tend to have higher resting metabolic rates due to the constant central nervous system stimulation they receive. Note this does not mean you should go drinking 10 cups of coffee per day. Too much caffeine for a prolonged period of time can be very dangerous.

So as you can see, there are many factors that can influence your resting metabolic rate and therefore, your total daily energy expenditure. As long as you have a good rough estimate however, that should be all you need to get the weight loss process started.

Setting up your diet for success

Now that you have this number, you are ready to move forward. This total daily energy expenditure is what your body will burn daily and therefore what you will need to maintain you body weight. Since your goal here is to not maintain your body weight but rather, lose weight, you need to adjust that number further.

There are 3500 calories in one pound of body fat, so you can now decide how fat back you want to take your calorie intake in order to lose weight at your desired rate.

If you want to lose about ½ pound per week, you’d need to cut your calorie intake back by around 250 calories.

If you want to lose 1 pound per week, a 500 calorie reduction would be your goal.

If you want to lose 1½ pounds per week, a 750 calorie cut would be necessary.

Most people should not aim to lose more than 1 ½ pounds per week as at that point, the reduction becomes too much and it can be hard to meet your daily nutritional needs.

The only individuals who may be able to take their calorie intake up to a 1000 calorie deficit to aim to lose 2 pounds per week are those who have 40+ pounds to lose.

Take some time right now and figure out how quickly you want your weight loss to progress. Do keep in mind that generally speaking, faster is not better. While you may be tempted to cut back your calories as much as you can, this can be less than ideal. Cut them back too hard and you’ll be looking at a higher risk of metabolic slow down, greater food cravings, a lower energy level, and a higher risk of lean muscle mass loss. Keeping your deficit between 250-500 calories per day tends to be ideal in most cases.

After your deficit is chosen, subtract that from the number you got earlier. This is now your total target calorie intake for weight loss.

Monitoring progress

After you have this number, you now need to put it into action. Start forming your meal plan, picking and choosing foods that will help you reach this intake accordingly. You’ll want to eat at that calorie level for around 2-4 weeks and then look at your progress.

Are you losing weight as you had hoped? If you are, continue on as you have been. You are on track to reaching your goals.

If you aren’t losing weight at the rate you desire, it’s time to make some adjustments. Remember that since the numbers we used above are only estimates, sometimes further tweaking is required.

If you are losing weight too quickly and are noticing a great decline in your energy level, you’ll want to add around 10% more calories to your diet or around 200 calories.

On the other hand, if you are not losing weight at all or not losing weight fast enough, subtract another 10% or 200-250 calories from your daily total. You’ll now want to eat at that new level for 1-2 weeks and assess again. Did that get things moving?

Chances are it will have. If it didn’t, repeat the process until it does. Keep in mind though that if you find that after 2-3 of these adjustments you are still not losing weight, this could be a very good sign that you aren’t accurately weighing or measuring your food. You must be eating the right serving sizes and tracking your incoming calories properly for all of this to work.

Many people fail to see the weight loss results they’re going for simply because they are making mistakes in their tracking. They feel like they’re doing everything ‘right’, but the reality is that they are taking in possibly hundreds of calories more each day than they believe due to inaccurate tracking. So double-check that as it could be swaying your progress.

The metabolic slow-down

Finally, the last thing we need to discuss when looking at how many calories you should eat for fat loss is the issue of your metabolism slowing down. This is going to happen to almost every dieter at some point or another, so it becomes very vital that you are doing something to prevent it.

It occurs because, as noted above, when you are consuming fewer calories than your body would ideally like, eventually it’s going to adapt to this new lower calorie intake. Your body wants to do everything that it can to prevent starvation from taking place and this is essentially what it thinks is going on here. Less food is coming in and for all your body knows, you’re looking at a famine.

Certain hormones such as one called leptin begin adjusting in the body and this in turn reduces how many calories you burn each day just maintaining basic body function. This now lowers your total daily energy expenditure and begins canceling out some of that deficit you had in place.

Over time, it can completely wipe out a deficit of 250 calories, meaning all fat loss comes to a stop.

When this happens, what do you do?

You have two options:

  1. Decrease your calorie intake further to create a greater deficit again
  2. Kick-start your metabolism so that it speeds up again.

Nine times out of ten, you should choose option 2. Do this by taking 2-3 days and eating 500-1000 calories more than you are eating right now, primarily from extra carbohydrates.

This will signal to the body that the perceived ‘famine’ is over and help give your metabolic rate that boost that you are looking for. Then when you go back down to your diet plan again, you’ll notice that you are burning calories faster and weight loss resumes.

It’s one of the best ways to prevent the dreaded weight loss plateau.

The Sati line

So there you have the basic facts you need to know and remember regarding how many calories you should be eating to see weight loss results. Each person is unique in terms of their resting metabolic rate and activity level, so it’s never a wise idea to adopt a one-size-fits all diet approach.

Plan your own calorie intake and adjust as time goes on according to the progress you see. If you do this, you will be on track to seeing remarkable results. Remember that this is a learning process so be patient with the approach. The longer you focus on doing this, the easier things will become and soon, it will just be in your second nature to know how much to eat and how to structure your diet for optimal weight loss results.